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From "The Appeal to Antiquity", Chapter One of The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451 | Adrian Fortescue | Ignatius Insight

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Quite a number of Christians of all denominations now discuss the possibility of healing, at last, the schisms that are the tragedy and the scandal of Christendom. It seems that the war of 1914-1918 had something to do with the spread of this feeling. The war in no way really affected the question. The scandal of our unhappy divisions was just as great before 1914. Yet it must count as some good out of so much evil if the soldiers, perhaps especially the army chaplains who returned, became more conscious of it. They saw in the Allied armies groups of men, all professing to follow the same Master, yet, even in the face of death, unable to say their prayers together.

Much of this discussion concerns a possible amalgamation of Protestant bodies. So far it does not affect Catholics; except that we can, we must, sympathize with any attempt to heal any schism, at least in the hope that such movements may lead eventually to the reunion that alone really matters.

From whichever camp a man approaches the question of reunion, he must see that no reconciliation can be anything like adequate unless it involves that communion, by far the largest of all, which obeys the Pope of Rome. One party in the Church of England is specially conscious of this: the Romanizing section of the High Church group. In this section there are men, clergymen, but laymen too, who have come around in an astonishing way from the ideas of the Reformers. They not only long for reunion with the Holy See; they are prepared to accept the Pope's primacy, to accept it, within limits, as being of divine right.

But there is papacy and papacy. In earlier days, they urge, the papacy was not what it has become in the Roman communion since. In the early Church the papacy was a far more moderate authority; there was a primacy then, but it was a constitutional primacy. Out of this, in the Roman communion, an unconstitutional papacy, an irresponsible autocracy, has grown. The Anglican of this school could submit to a constitutional papacy, not to the arbitrary rule now claimed by the Pope. So, such Anglicans suggest, let us concentrate on the question of the papacy in the early Church. In order to determine a limit, let us take the year Of the Synod of Chalcedon, 451, and discuss what the Church recognized as the Pope's authority before that. The advantage of such a limit is that (in this view) all branches of the Church-Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans acknowledge the Church at least down to that year; to all of us this early period is the standard, and we all claim that our religion is that of the Catholic Church at least down to 451. The Bible, then, and the voice of the Church down to 451 supply a common ground for discussion. The Romanizing Anglican is confident that by examining this standard period, we shall find that there was then indeed an acknowledged Roman primacy (so far he is on our side, against many of his co-religionists) but that it was a constitutional primacy. Therefore Romanists, too, accepting this undoubted standard, will see themselves obliged, not indeed to give up the papacy, but to reduce it to its primitive limits. When they do so, the great hindrance to reunion between them and the rest of the Church will be happily removed. The severed Church will heal her gaping wounds, the present scandal of Christendom will cease, the seamless robe of Christ will again be united, under a constitutional primate. Each side in our long controversy will have yielded something--they, their rejection of any primacy; we, our arbitrary monarchy--so we shall meet halfway. Meanwhile, it has been urged, we have already in this original constitutional papacy the authority of the Church that an Anglican can recognize and obey. It is no use to say that the constitutional papacy no longer exists, on his own showing. It lives in its voices in the documents of that early age still extant; it is a living authority, just as much as the Bible. Obey what that primitive papacy commanded in like circumstances, what you think it would command today, if it had not disappeared under the exaggerations of a later age; and you have your authority for the Church, at least as good an authority as that of the Protestant, who obeys what the Bible commands in similar circumstances.

Such a position is riddled with impossibilities. First, we cannot admit that it is necessary for a Catholic today to examine the documents of the years 1 to 451 in order to know what is the nature of the primacy that Christ gave to his Church. We believe in a Church that exists and lives all days, even to the end of the world, guided by Christ, infallible in faith and morals as long as she exists. We have exactly the same confidence in the divine guidance of the Church in 1870 as in 451. To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred years, to judge for yourself, according to the measure of your scholarship, what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in a living authority. It is a far worse criterion for religion than the old Protestant idea of the Bible only. We say that it is impossible for a plain man to make up his own religion out of sixty-six books (seventy-three if you count the deuterocanonical books), written at different times, and not specially for his difficulties now. It is even more obviously impossible if to these you add about a hundred volumes of Migne. [1] All these methods of taking some early documents, whether the Bible or the Fathers, and making them your standard, mean simply a riot of private judgment on each point of religion. People disagree and will continue to disagree about the interpretation of ancient documents, of early Fathers, even more than of the books in the Bible. When one Anglican has admitted that he finds a constitutional papacy in the Fathers and councils down to 451, another Anglican, possibly still more learned in patrology, will deny that these old texts mean any real primacy at all. We shall go on arguing about the meaning of the Fathers even more hopelessly than we have argued for centuries about the meaning of Matthew 16:18, when Jesus said to Peter, "Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Douay-Rheims). The only possible real standard is a living authority, an authority alive in the world at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient documents. [2]

A further fallacy of this view is that, because Romanists, Orthodox and Anglicans (not really all Anglicans, by the way; the Evangelicals acknowledge the Bible only and have Article VI plainly in their favor) recognize the Church down to 451, this is therefore to be the standard. This is the usual High Church fallacy of supposing that these communions together make up the Church, and then taking as your standard the points on which they agree. The Armenian and Copt, both representing large national churches, both baptized and not having (in some sense) lost their baptismal life, object very strongly to including the Synod of Chalcedon. They want to stop at 431. But then the Assyrian [3] could object to this equally strongly, quite as strongly as the Anglican objects to the First Vatican Council. The Arian, if such a thing is left, objects to Nicea in 325. So you will have to come back to the Bible only. Then we shall quarrel over the question concerning which books form the Bible; and the higher critic, the Broad Anglican, will by no means admit that all that is in even the protocanonical books is authentic. Where is your standard now? What is the good of a standard that already supposes what you are going to prove?

Further, the idea of a dead past in which the Church was united, and a present in which it is not, means really that the original Church, founded by Christ, has ceased to exist. A society that has become three or more separate societies no longer exists. This is so obvious that no one would think of disputing it, unless he had some controversial axe to grind. Consider the case of any other society, where no one has anything at stake in his view of what happened. In 1914 there was an Austro-Hungarian State. Now, that state broke up into a German-Austrian Republic, a separated Hungary, a Czecho-Slovak Republic, part of Poland, a kingdom of Southern Slavs. What was the result? Where is the original Austro-Hungarian State? It no longer exists.

We cannot then admit any criterion of this kind, nor any necessity to go back to some ancient period, and documents of a former age, to find in them the authority of the Church of Christ. That would not be a living authority at all. In the same way a man could pretend that he belongs to the Church of Jupiter and that he finds in the works of Livy the authority that governs his church. But who would admit that there is such a church now existing or that these are a living authority?

Our view of the Church is altogether different. We believe that, whatever may happen, the Church of Christ still lives and will live to the end of the world. Christ said so. She remains always what he founded--one united society. Her rebel children may leave her and set up rival churches of their own. This is tragic; it is the great tragedy of Christendom; but it does not affect the unity of the original Church, for unity is of her essence. Nothing can destroy that, because her Founder is almighty and promised that she should last always, till the end of the world. The fact that many Christians have left the Church of Christ is not new; it is almost as old as Christianity itself. From the time of the first Gnostic sects, of which we read in the New Testament, through the great Arian schism, through Nestorianism and Monophysitism, through the Paulicians and the schism of Cerularius, through the heresies of the Albigensians and the Reformation, there has been a procession of sects cut away from the Church that Christ founded. Anglicans are fond of saying that it is a "fact" that the Catholic Church is now divided. It is a fact that there are many Christians who have left her, that Christendom is divided; it is not a fact that the Church is divided. They might as well say that it is a fact that the Church was no longer visibly one in Arian days. If ever it were so, then the original Church would no longer exist; the gates of hell would have prevailed. Many things are possible, heresy and schism are possible; but that is not possible. So we believe in the one visible Church today just as much as that there was such a Church from Pentecost to the year 451. We look to this Church for guidance in religion, as she is now, as she teaches this year. The volumes of Migneare of great interest, but they are not necessary for us to know what the Church of Christ teaches. There is, indeed, a special halo around the venerable antiquity of the first centuries; but the Church was not more guided by our Lord then than she is now: The criterion of faith about the papacy for us is what the Catholic Church teaches today. We shall never get forward in discussion with people on anyone dogma till we agree about this: that the authority of the Church today is the criterion for all dogmas.


[1] I Patrologię cursus completus: Series gręca, 161 vols. (Paris, 1886); Series latina, 221 vols. (Paris, 1844-1866): the great collection of the works of the Greek and Latin Fathers, edited by Fr. J. P. Migne.

[2] The Rev. F.W Puller, as one instance, makes much of appeal to antiquity as the one criterion of the true faith and dismisses any other attitude as "rationalistic, not to say heretical". (The Primitive Saints and the See of Rome, 3rd ed. [London: Longmans, 1914], author's preface, pp. xxviii-xxix, and appendix M, pp. 432-33.)

Our objection to antiquity as the final standard is not that we admit or fear that antiquity may be against the claims of the Pope. On the contrary, we are convinced it supports them entirely as the quotations in this book, I hope, will show. Our objection is that antiquity as the final standard throws every article offaith to each man's private opinion, just as hopelessly as appeal to the Bible only. Good and learned men of different sects disagree as to what the early Fathers believed, what exactly their words mean, as much as they disagree about the teaching of the Bible. The Anglican appeals to antiquity against the Pope; the Presbyterian appeals to the same antiquity against any bishops; the Unitarian and nearly all Protestant leaders in Germany and Holland now appeal against the Trinity. The appeal to the faith of the early Church means really what you, by virtue of your studies, think the early Church believed. This is as essentially Protestant, as subjective, as to make each man's private judgment of the meaning of Bible texts his final standard; and it is fifty times as difficult in practice. The Catholic criterion is what the living Church, guided always by God, teaches today. This, and this alone, is a real, objective standard of belief, about which there neither is nor can be any doubt, once you know what the Church of Christ is.

[3] The Assyrian Church of the East, once popularly known as the Nestorian Church, which rejected the Council of Ephesus, 431.

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The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451

Adrian Fortescue | Edited by Alcuin Reid

Adrian Fortescue, a British apologist for the Catholic faith in the early part of the 20th century, wrote this classic of clear exposition on the faith of the early Church in the papacy based upon the writings of the Church fathers until 451. No ultramontanist, Fortescue can be a keen critic of personal failings of various Popes, but he shows through his brilliant assessment of the writings of the Church fathers that the early Church had a clear understanding of the primacy of Peter and a belief in the divinely given authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals.

Referring to the famous passage in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus confers his authority upon Peter as the head of the Apostles, and the first Pope, Fortescue says that, while Christians can continue to argue about the exact meaning of that passage from Scripture, and the various standards that are used for judgments about correct Christian teaching and belief, "the only possible real standard is a living authority, an authority alive in the world at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient documents."

Fortescue shows that the papacy actually seems to be one of the clearest and easiest dogmas to prove from the early Church. And it is his hope through this work that it will contribute to a ressourcement with regard to the office of the papacy among those in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and that it will assist those outside this communion to seek it out, confident that it is willed by Christ for all who would be joined to him in this life and in the next.

• Also available from Ignatius Press: The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings, by Adrian Fortescue.

Adrian Fortescue was a priest, author and highly respected scholar from England who lived in the early twentieth century. He wrote several books on Church history and on the liturgy.

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